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HRN Original Blog:
A New York State of Racing

Wood Memorial Point/Counterpoint: Verrazano vs Vyjack

This week's stop on the 2013 Kentucky Derby trail is V for Verrazano - or will it be V for Vyjack? 
HRN Managing Editor Brian Zipse and New York State of Racing's Matt Shifman discuss Point/Counterpoint style the high points of both undefeated colts in this year's salty renewal of the Wood Memorial! 


New York State of Racing
Zipse at the Track
Matt Shifman:
In the past decade the Wood Memorial, which is New York’s final Kentucky Derby prep race, has lost some of its luster. Recently the Wood has produced a series of horses that have been non-starters, also-rans, and beaten favorites in the Kentucky Derby. With two undefeated stars heading the field in Vyjack and Verrazano, this should be the year that the Wood returns to prominence.
Vyjack is a horse that should be the favorite all of us horse players. Vyjack is owned by David Wilkenfeld and the Pick Six Racing Stable. Wilkenfeld is a handicapper who is famous for having hit the big pick 6 tickets that we all dream about: $3.3 million, $1.2 million, $500,000, and several over $100,000. The fact that a bona-fide bettor owns Vyjack enhances his image as a horse that appeals to the people.
Vyjack’s amazing last to first victory in the Gotham Stakes last month led Horse Racing Nation’s Managing Editor to write an article titled, the Curious Case of Vyjack. We all remember how Brian raved about Vyjack, “In forty years of watching the races, I could probably count the number of horses that I have seen do it on one hand. What exactly did the undefeated son of Into Mischief do that was so extraordinary? Simple … confirmed speed horses do not drop way back, only to come from the clouds and roll to victory.” 

Vyjack is now a perfect four-for-four, but that has not been good enough for the Rodriguez stable. They have continued to work on his development. In a recent workout Vyjack was paired up with Head Heart Hoof, the winner of the February, Grade 3 Toboggan. Vyjack started two lengths behind the older horse, easily caught him, drew clear by three parts of a length, and widened in the gallop out. The five furlongs was timed in :59.07.

I love the growth and development of Vyjack since he won his first race in November as an unheralded two-year-old at odds of 17-1. In the past five months, Vyjack has been transformed from an undisciplined front runner to an experienced and patient closer. As a matter of fact, Vyjack has gotten so much out of his training that it led assistant trainer and exercise rider, Gustavo Rodriguez, to say that, “He’s worked with many horses, and nobody can keep up with him.”

I have tremendous respect for Verrazano’s trainer, Todd Pletcher. However, Verrazano has continued to train in that same standard Pletcher method of steady and consistent four or five furlong breezes. Nobody can deny that Verrazano’s three races have been very impressive, but I don’t see the learning curve or the maturity that has transformed Vyjack. I give Vyjack a big edge in the experience and versatility departments.
Even though both horses are conditioned by New York-based trainers, Vyjack is the favorite of this NYRA reporter. He has spent his entire career at Aqueduct. He has two wins on the main track and two on the inner. I have been lucky enough to see his last two wins in the Jerome and the Gotham. Talking to trainer Rudy Rodriguez after those races was a treat because he is a genuinely humble and nice guy. Aqueduct is not the most glamorous track in the country. It is cold and windy during the meeting. The backside barn area that Vyjack calls home is stark in comparison to Belmont, Saratoga, or for that matter Palm Meadows, which is the winter home of Todd Pletcher and Verrazano.

Vyjack holds an enormous home track advantage over Verrazano. Verrazano has never run outside of the warm and comfortable settings of Gulfstream Park and Tampa Bay Downs. Brian, you and I have visited the luxurious, breezy, and beautiful Palm Meadows Training Center. The backside at Belmont is nice, but you have to admit that Verrazano is definitely going to feel out place at Aqueduct on Saturday in the early spring conidtions of Ozone Park, NY.

As part of the transformation of Vyjack, a jockey change was made for the Gotham Stakes. Joel Rosario was a perfect fit and Vyjack responded to the jockey’s guidance as they the circled the entire field in that dramatic finish. Right now there is no hotter rider in the country than Rosario. He is riding with total confidence, as he displayed in the Dubai World Cup when he rode Animal Kingdom to that monstrous performance.

Regardless of the outcome, these are two amazing undefeated three-year-olds that will hopefully provide a thrilling one-two finish. It would be very exciting to have an unbeaten horse come out of the Wood Memorial and head into the 2013 Kentucky Derby as one of the favorites.

Brian Zipse:
Amen, Matt. It’s been a long time since Angle Light shocked Sham and Secretariat in perhaps the most famous of all Wood Memorials … 40 years to be exact. Not all of the Wood’s poor recent runs in Louisville have been to lack of quality, as it seems the race has also had a run of bad luck. Hopefully that luck will turn this year, because I agree with you, this Wood Memorial is a good one.

Sure, it’s nice that a horseplayer owns Vyjack, but Verrazano’s group from Let’s Go Stables seems like a nice bunch, and to me this discussion really boils down to only one thing. While the Wood is more than a two-horse race, the undefeated V’s sure look tough. You like Vyjack, I like Verrazano … let’s get it on!

Using my own words against me, Matt? Dirty pool! Yes, I thought the transformation from speed horse to closer in the Gotham was rather remarkable for Vyjack, and it helped me come to the conclusion that he is a very nice horse. Keep in mind though, that I also said, after Verrazano’s allowance win that, “We have found the first brilliant horse of this foal crop, and his name is Verrazano.” I think this comparison of a very nice horse versus a brilliant horse is exactly what we are dealing with in the 2013 Wood Memorial. Brilliant defeats very nice 9-out of-10 times.

I have seen video of some of Vyjack’s recent works, including the one you speak of; they look solid. You know of course, that you have inadvertently wondered down a very slippery slope here. Verrazano has been so impressive in his early career that Todd Pletcher has been working with some real tigers from his loaded barn for some time now. Case in point, a recent tightener with Discreet Dancer; and yes, Verrazano got the best of the talented horse sure to go off favored in the Grade 1 Carter.

Good Vyjack’s crew better be working on him, and he better be developing, because he’s never seen anything the likes of what he will see on Saturday afternoon. Frankly speaking, going from Siete de Oros and West Hills Giant to Verrazano will simply be a bridge too far for the Rodriguez charge. All that talk of developing and learning curve is thrown out the window with a horse like Verrazano. He has been a freak since the first time he stepped on the track for his debut on New Year’s Day.
Lack of experience? Seeing how one has raced four times and the other three times, I think what you are really saying is that Verrazano has made it look far too easy. That is what brilliant horses do. In his maiden, he ran off by almost eight in fast time. The horse that he beat came right back to win next out. His next race, a Gulfstream allowance, he absolutely toyed with a pair of well-liked horses in Eton Blue and Gunderman. Both horses have returned from that 16 plus length drubbing to account well of themselves.
I’ll give you that one; Vyjack has had a much more gritty winter existence than Verrazano. But who cares? It’s time to wash clean the grit of New York winter, and welcome in the spring. Spring is when the real contenders for the Kentucky Derby are revealed. Hello, Verrazano! While Vyjack has the relative home-track advantage of the Big A, I was thoroughly impressed with Verrazano’s trip away from the speed favoring fast strip of Gulfstream to the very different dirt course of Tampa Bay Downs. Looking anything but like a horse that needs a certain type of track, Verrazano dominated a good field in the Tampa Bay Derby. It made no matter what the track was like; quality prevailed, just as it will on Saturday.
With all due respect for his undefeated record, I humbly ask who has Vyjack defeated. It looks to me like a number of good horses, but no one with real Kentucky Derby potential. Maybe Elnaawi, but he was clearly green in the Gotham. Meanwhile, in the Tamba Bay Derby, Verrazano easily dispatched of a real quality speed horse in Falling Sky, before just as easily keeping a strong stretch run of Java’s War at bay. Many people have Java’s War in their Derby top ten list. He was no match for Verrazano.

I have two words for you … Johnny V. Is there any single jockey that you would rather have on your horse in a big race than John Velazquez? There are none that I would rather have. As the rider for the #1 and #2 (Orb) horses on my Down & Derby Sweet 16, Johnny V will have a real decision to make soon. I think that decision will be made a whole lot easier by another big performance by the most talented sophomore in the nation on Saturday.
I will conclude where I began, Matt … Amen! While I love Verrazano in this spot, the Wood has come together as an excellent field. Besides Vyjack, horses like Normandy Invasion, Elnaawi, Mr. Palmer, Always in A Tiz, and Freedom Child are not ones that can be ignored. I’m happy to say that when Verrazano travels to Louisville still undefeated, he will have taken down a very good edition of the Wood Memorial.


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 Meet Matt Shifman 

Matt Shifman has been on the Horse Racing Nation staff since 2011 and currently serves as Assistant Editor. Matt covers Aqueduct, Belmont Park, Monmouth Park, and Saratoga in his two HRN blogs Racing at the Jersey Shore and New York State of Racing.


Matt’s articles and tweets frequently appear in the America’s Best Racing weekly Notebook. In 2012 he became a voter in the NTRA weekly polls for the Top Thoroughbred and Top Three-Year-Old.


The best way to get to know Matt is to check out some of his favorite articles from the past couple years.

• Preakness Interview with Trainer Todd Pletcher

• Kentucky Derby 2016 Handicapping Tips from A to Z


• Edison: the Travels of a Million Dollar Colt 

• A Kentucky Derby Field with Just 14 Horses

• What is the Best Kentucky Derby Running Style?



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